London’s West End has bucked the downturn but it can still be improved. Nicola Harrison looks at the latest vision for the district.
Much of UK retail has had it hard these past few years. Vacancy rates up and down the land have hit record levels as shoppers cut down on discretionary spend, forcing retailers to reassess their store estates, product offerings and prices as they battle the toughest market in generations.
But there is one region that has remained sheltered from such woes. It attracts 200 million visitors a year, and clocked up £7.6bn retail spend in 2011. It is home to 120 international brands, and store groups are willing to fight it out to secure prime locations.
That area is London’s West End. It is regarded as one of the best shopping districts in the world and therefore the world’s best retailers want stores there.
According to a CBRE study, 14 flagship stores opened in the West End over the 100-day Olympics period, including Chinese luxury retailer Bosideng, Burberry, and Victoria’s Secret.
Another report by the management agency of the Business Improvement District for the West End, the New West End Company (NWEC) – along with Heart of London Business Alliance and Jones Lang LaSalle – found that two-thirds of the top 100 global luxury retailers in the world now have shops in the newly named London Luxury Quarter of the West End, which includes Bond Street and surrounding streets.
Initiatives such as the Crown Estate’s revamp of Regent Street, a new diagonal street crossing at Oxford Circus and the beginnings of regeneration at the dowdier east end of Oxford Street, evidenced by last week’s Primark opening, have all attracted retailers.
But there is more to be done, and the NWEC aims to ensure the area remains a top spot for shoppers from across the globe. This week the body unveiled its plans for 2013 to 2018 as it seeks a renewed mandate from businesses in the area.
In 2005, the NWEC was established as a formal Business Improvement District (BID) area for Bond Street, Oxford Street and Regent Street , along with 12 neighbouring streets. In 2007, the mandate was renewed for a further five years.
So what should the 600 or so retailers that operate stores on Oxford Street, Regent Street and Bond Street expect over the next five years? How does the NWEC aim to harness the goodwill towards London after the Olympic and Paralympic Games?
One gripe that causes consternation among retailers is the nose-to-tail traffic along Regent Street and Oxford Street. There have been many suggestions over the years to curb the number of cars and buses allowed along the thoroughfares, including installing a tram, although that idea was ruled out because of the cost involved.
In recent years Transport for London (TfL) has reduced the number of buses by 20%, but that is not enough, according to NWEC chief executive Richard Dickinson.
“People are fed up of buses,” he says. “We’re not bus bashing. We just think city centres should be people places. People and large red metal objects don’t mix well.”
The NWEC is running a conference in November dedicated to finding solutions to the traffic problems big cities face. “Our vision is to say ‘let’s look at all the options’,” says Dickinson. “The solution isn’t to say ‘take all the buses out’, but we want a change to the way buses are managed in central London.”
The organisation has already organised many traffic-free events on Oxford Street and Regent Street, which have generated shopper spend of £300m in a weekend, and Dickinson is planning more. He is proposing to close the streets to traffic every Sunday over the summer, an initiative New York has undertaken successfully.
There is also the option of introducing long-term traffic-free hours, an approach that has been adopted in Singapore, says Dickinson.
measures, lower speed limits, and pedestrianised zones are all being looked at too. Shuttle schemes could be an option, ferrying shoppers from one end of Oxford Street to another. But, concedes Dickinson, there’s “not one magic bullet”.
Perhaps the biggest game-changer for the area in the coming years will be Crossrail. There are obvious advantages to the new transport system, not least that it will bring more shoppers to the district – 20 million more are anticipated.
It will also result in a new crossing over Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road. But if Crossrail is to be a success, the huge numbers of visitors must be managed properly across the West End, says Dickinson.
“How will we welcome them, how will we make sure it’s not too crowded?” he asks. The NWEC will work closely with Westminster City Council, TfL and the Mayor’s Office to find a solution, Dickinson says.
West End stores have proved a popular target of protesters. UK Uncut infamously conducted a sit-in at both Topshop and Vodafone’s Oxford Street flagships in protests over tax arrangements, while Fortnum & Mason was occupied and daubed with paint.
Dickinson says his organisation has a good relationship with the Metropolitan Police, enabling it to react quickly to problems.
“There’s a reason why we weren’t targeted in the West End during the riots, and it’s because we were on top of it, we had the right resources,” he says.
To improve the fight against crime, the NWEC will harness technology, including Facewatch, which uses face recognition technology to identify repeat offenders. All NWEC members will be offered it, to enable a joined-up security strategy. “It makes it much harder for people to get away with it,” Dickinson says.
The West End, and Oxford Street in particular, is not always the most pleasant shopping experience. Extreme overcrowding, buses belching out fumes and a cluster of tacky and uninspiring shops at the eastern end can put people off.
So one of Dickinson’s pledges is to create more green spaces in the district. “We want to make better public spaces,” he says. “We need more green space.”
He is working with the local authority to ensure there is “flexibility on planning policy” to allow that.
Another challenge to overcome is the disparate nature of the district. To a newcomer, the area can seem daunting. The three main streets are easy enough to find, but there are hidden gems, such as St Christopher’s Place and Carnaby Street, that can be troublesome for visitors to locate.
The NWEC has launched an app for the Luxury Quarter, containing maps and tips on dining, tours, shopping and special services in the hotels and upmarket stores in the area.
“Digital is a really important channel,” says Dickinson. “We want to make movement around the West End as easy as possible.”
An app is planned for the rest of the district next year and the NWEC plans to create a virtual West End online to help visitors understand the area before they arrive.
“There are ways we can present the West End online, the objective is to make people stay longer,” says Dickinson. “It’s a complicated area with lots of hidden lanes. It’s not like a shopping centre where you’re very well directed.”
Some may say the five-year plan is in part designed to take on the all-singing, all-dancing shopping centres that have popped up on each side of the West End – Westfield London and Westfield Stratford City.
Not so, says Dickinson. “London has been historically underdeveloped in terms of shopping centres,” he says. “White City and Stratford have not really affected us. The economy has been more important.”
Other aims over the next five years include pushing the customer profile up. That may seem incongruous as mass-market specialist Primark opened near Tottenham Court Road last week – its second giant shop on Oxford Street. Dickinson argues that NWEC does not want to deter shoppers attracted to value and mid-market retailers, but he does want to pull in new, higher-spending consumers.
“There are always going to be the value shoppers, and we welcome them, but more higher-spending customers can only be a good thing,” he argues.
“We have ‘lost shoppers’ and we’d like to get some of them back – it’s about perception. We want to push the customer profile up through the mix of tenants and improving the public realm. It all helps.”
The body will also continue to lobby on issues including relaxing visa rules for Chinese tourists to allow more visitors from the country. “It’s an enormous opportunity,” says Dickinson. “We’re losing out to Paris and Germany.”
Permanently extending Sunday trading will remain high on the agenda too.
With a plan ultimately aimed at bringing in more shoppers and therefore more spend, Dickinson hopes the NWEC plan will be backed by retailers. The organisation will be asking retailers for £25m over the next five years, and £20m from property owners, as well as seeking public money.
Dickinson believes his plan is worth it. “We’ve got to create growth. The economic policy of the Government is stuttering. Our role is to drive further growth and investment in the West End. We’re very focused on delivering better trading environments.
“We’re a superb world-class shopping destination. We’re delivering what retailers want. But we’re not complacent.”
The future of the West End will have an impact on most retailers’ overall performances, and store groups will be able to vote with their feet on December 13, when votes on the NWEC business plan are due in.
Lap of luxury - Improvement proposals
- Transform public spaces and introduce higher-quality paving, new lighting and refreshed ‘oasis’ areas
- New Christmas lights, street dressing, flags and a coherent look and feel for hoardings and building wraps
- Investment in the Luxury Quarter, promoting the area to high net-worth international shoppers
- Shopper services, potentially including valet parking, delivery to hotels and concierge services
- A review of the Oxford Street brand, enhancement of digital channels and tourism marketing to increase sales
- New Christmas lights from 2013 and a “new approach to traffic-free events”
- Redevelopment of the east end, including improvements to public spaces, a shopper information kiosk and “robust” planning for Crossrail
- Improvements to crime prevention systems
- A reinvigorated traffic-free events programme
- Continuation of the Regent Street-branded Red Cap Welcome Ambassador service, with potential for more shopper information points and kiosks
- Continuation of chewing gum removal services, with investment in deep cleaning and litter removal prior to Saturday and Sunday trading
- Measures to include greater levels of visible police presence